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Former Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance calls Trump indictment 'extraordinary event'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

On Tuesday, former President Donald Trump is expected to appear in a Manhattan courtroom to face charges stemming from a historic indictment. As we have said over and over the last few days, we still do not know what specific charges are facing the former president. We will not know that until the indictment is unsealed. But they are connected to Trump's alleged role in covering up hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign.

That's an investigation that began years ago under then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Given his role in initiating the probe, we thought it'd be a good time to check in with him about this moment, what led to it and what might come next. Cy Vance, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CYRUS VANCE JR: Good afternoon, Scott. Thank you for having me.

DETROW: So to put it mildly, there's been a lot of criticism at the moment of your successor, Alvin Bragg - a lot of commentary, especially from Republicans. You've got a unique vantage point here, so I want to start with that. And I'd like to start with a tweet from Jeb Bush, who I don't think anyone would mistake for a MAGA Republican because I think that sums up a lot of the pushback that's happening right now.

Bush tweeted, Bragg's predecessor - which is you - didn't take up the case. The Justice Department didn't take up the case. Bragg first said he would not take up the case. This is very political, not a matter of justice. In this case, let the jury be the voters.

What do you make of that general line of criticism?

VANCE: Well, I think the indictment of the president's - former president himself is an extraordinary event. There's no getting around that. And it's an important event, legally and culturally. So that's - my first reaction is we - is that everybody has reason to be very focused on the sort of severity of where we are right now and the divisions within our country. That said, I also agree with you, Scott, that we need to all hold our fire. The only person who really knows why he made the decision is Alvin Bragg, and the facts that will support or not support his decision will be laid out when the indictment is dismissed. Until then, I think we all can have our political viewpoints, but we need to let the process play out.

DETROW: You said the only person who knows exactly why this is moving forward at this time is Alvin Bragg. You might be closest to him, though, because you held this job and you were DA when the initial probe into the former president began. Why did you make that decision? Because, look, prosecutors - we know prosecutors make choices - what to investigate, what to charge. Why did you begin that broader investigation? What were you looking for?

VANCE: Well, I'm not going to be able, Scott, to get into the internal conversations of the office, which are confidential and some covered by grand jury privilege. But I will say this, that I think it's public record that we commenced the investigation at around the same time as the Southern District of New York did. I was asked - we were asked by the Southern District of New York to stand down. We did stand down for probably over a year. And then it got to the point where Michael Cohen was indicted and pleaded guilty, and then it stopped. So that was one reason why we didn't move forward at the beginning.

DETROW: I do want to ask about the timeline here, because it's something that's come up a lot over the past few days. These payments happened in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Michael Cohen provided all of the broad strokes of this to the public in that very memorable appearance before Congress, which was in 2019. So a lot of the basic facts here were known while you were still in office. Was this particular dynamic - the Stormy Daniels payments - was that part of your investigation? Why didn't this go forward earlier, when most of these facts were known?

VANCE: Well, I think I've given you the answer with regard to at least one aspect, that we were asked to. We were asked because the federal prosecutors were looking at it. They had better laws. So up until Michael Cohen pleaded guilty - and then this was really something that the federal government had asked that we not get involved with. But, you know, and also, I think it's well known that there are, you know - that, as a matter of New York law, unlike federal law, there are novel issues around using the false statements statute in connection with committing a crime that violates federal election laws. There's no surprise there or secret there. So there were a number of reasons that caused us to think carefully.

DETROW: In theory, everyone is treated equally before the law. But in reality, I think it's fair to say it's going to be very different when a former president appears in court, which we expect on Tuesday. I mean, among other things, there's Secret Service coordination, you know, on how to make this happen. If you were still in office, how would you be approaching Tuesday? Are there any aspects of this you're concerned about?

VANCE: There's a lot of external factors that are just - don't happen for 99.99% of the cases we have. I'm concerned about security. The state court office is not exactly as - is different than a federal courthouse. We have - it's much bigger. You have many more witnesses, victims, employees, public coming in and out. It will be a real challenge for the PD, the court officers, investigators in our office to ensure that things function safely and smoothly.

DETROW: So last question - looking ahead to Tuesday, we've talked about concerns about possible violence. We've talked about the fact that we, the public, still do not know the details of these charges, and they might be broader. Is there anything else that you are thinking about or looking forward to on Tuesday that you yourself have big questions about?

VANCE: I wouldn't be surprised if there's an attempt to move - to somehow get the federal courts involved, either directly with the state court first, asking for a continuance until after the primaries or the election that are upcoming or filing a federal action, as he did with us, to try to get the federal courts to perhaps, you know, have some control over the timing, process and scope of the state case. It's - those are things that - those are strategies we've seen play out ourselves, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see them again.

DETROW: That's former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. He's now a partner at Baker and McKenzie Law Firm. Thank you so much for joining us.

VANCE: Thank you, Scott. Appreciated being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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